Of the many challenges a business faces when it comes to improving the business writing skills of its employees, the biggest challenge is selecting a yardstick for comparison. Since writing is a subjective skill, deciding the appropriate standard to differentiate “good” business writing from “bad” business writing is difficult.
Similarly, “good business writing” appears to be a fuzzy concept that is difficult to measure. How then, can one define and measure good business writing skills? What should be measured and what tools can help?
Improving Business Writing Skills Requires Attention to Both Substance and Syntax
Luckily, there are two important criteria to determine the effectiveness of business writing:
Substance refers to the content of the document. Substance includes the information contained – the facts, the findings, the requests. It’s the “meat” of the document.
Syntax, on the other hand, refers to the language of the document. This includes the words, sentences, and tenses used. Syntax carries the presentation of the document and its readability. Syntax will shape the tone of the document. In essence, syntax carries the substance.
Together, substance and syntax are two ways to judge a business document and decide whether it is good or bad.
The substance of a document is more important than the syntax.
If the basic idea and information for a specific audience for a report are unclear, for example, the report won't carry the right information the reader needs, regardless of how grammatically correct it is.
If you don’t get the substance right, syntax alone cannot fix content errors or omissions. As my grandmother used to say, “You’re just putting lipstick on a pig.”
Nonetheless, syntax is also important. Honing good substance in business documents should always be a primary focus in business writing training, but syntax (the language and grammar) carries the meaning. Poor syntax is very unprofessional.
With the advent of new tools and technologies, measuring and improving syntax has become easier than before. Here are the two ways syntax in business writing can be measured:
1) Measure Syntax with Microsoft's Readability Index
Most writing software (including the very popular Microsoft Word) offers a readability tool to measure syntax. It will measure active voice and passive voice and the simplicity or complexity of sentence structure throughout the business document. This tool is also useful in assessing clarity.
If passive voice is high and sentence structures are complex, it's a clear indication that clarity is lacking.
Readability tools provide reporting on the words per sentence used, the percentage of passive sentences, and assign a readability score and grade to the overall document. When combined with the overall document content, this score helps you determine whether the appropriate message has been communicated in the document or not.
As a rule of thumb, remember these three tips:
- The lower the passive voice used, the better the readability score.
- Flesh Reading Ease score should be just above standard for a well-written business document.
- Flesh-Kincaid grade level tends to vary with the complexity of the document, but lower is always better in business writing. We want to express, not impress.
2) Assess Grammar with Grammar Check
Another easy-to-use tool to both measure and improve syntax is to check the grammar in the document.
Thanks to Microsoft Word’s grammar check, some of the proofreading requirements have been reduced. It's ineffective and boring to teach your staff how to avoid spelling mistakes when as a single red or green dotted line on the Word file highlights potential errors. Spellcheck is far from infallible, but it will flag typos.
Tip: watch for grammar error patterns in your own writing, or your employee’s writing. This will diagnose individual grammar errors, allowing you to focus on improving the issues that truly need attention.
Remember to focus first on substance in business writing training. Once the substance is verified, then use syntax rating tools, such as Microsoft’s Readability Index and simple grammar check to verify syntax.
To learn more on how to improve business writing skills for yourself and your employees, download the guide “Four Steps to improve your Team’s Business Writing Skills” today!